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Does Tech Deserve to Be Demonized? Of Course It Does.

December 2, 2019, 1:46 PM UTC

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The demonization of Silicon Valley continues. On HBO’s Silicon Valley, fictional billionaire Gavin Belson has turned ethicist and siren for the evils of tech. In real-life academia, Harvard’s Shoshana Zuboff has provoked a strain of regulatory thought that the surveillance capitalists—Google, Facebook and Internet wannabes—have built outsized power with ill-gotten gains. And elsewhere in real life, investor Roger McNamee has become, in The New Yorker’s words, “Big Tech’s Big Defector.”

Having known McNamee for a couple decades, I found the in-depth profile of him in the current issue entertaining and true. Writer Brian Barth calls McNamee tech’s “eccentric uncle,” an apt description. McNamee’s perspective is broad and deep. He started his professional life picking tech stocks for a mutual fund. He was among the first Silicon Valley investors to take stakes simultaneously in private and public companies, a more common practice today.

And while many note that his Elevation Partners made a killing by investing in Facebook, few remember that the investment also saved a struggling fund.

Now McNamee has turned against tech, particularly Facebook and Google. He shares Zuboff’s concerns that the too-powerful companies are a threat to life as we know it. Unlike Zuboff, McNamee is biting the hand that has fed him—an act I’d argue bolsters his credibility rather than hurts it.

McNamee and others are waging an energetic and enthusiastic regulatory, legislative, and PR campaign against Big Tech, which has tremendous regulatory, legislative, and PR resources of its own. Does tech deserve to be demonized? Of course it does. It has grown arrogant. It has become a caricature of its lofty values. And it has fallen far short of its world-changing goals. Moments like this have a somewhat predictable life cycle, with the pendulum inevitably swinging back. The time has not yet come.

***

I read Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys in a couple days over the weekend. It’s a crushing, elegant, highly readable novel about racism in America. I recommend it … I also recommend this smart piece in The Atlantic by Jerry Useem, who reported on Boeing for Fortune nearly 20 years ago and has made one of the most astute observations I’ve seen about what led to the company’s current crisis. Spoiler alert: Managers who wipe out a storied corporate culture will reap what they sow … Finally, here’s a great interview in The Financial Times with journalist and author Ronan Farrow. He is incredibly accomplished for any age, let alone for his 31 years. His work is a reminder of why journalism, including business journalism, has the ability to take account of the powerful and hold the powerful to account.

Adam Lashinsky

Twitter: @adamlashinsky

Email: adam_lashinsky@fortune.com

This edition of Data Sheet was curated by Aaron Pressman.

NEWSWORTHY

Blanked out. Short video app TikTok apologized last week after deleting a teenage girl's post that was critical of China. The service, owned by Chinese Internet company Bytedance, is under investigation for possibly posing a security risk to the United States.

Lost in the fog. Speaking of political missteps, Apple has begun showing the Crimea region of Ukraine as part of Russia on iOS's Maps app. The United States and most other countries have refused to recognize Russia's forced annexation of the region after its invasion in 2014. Apple said it is reviewing the situation.

Who's been naughty and who's been nice. Want to get a jump on your holiday shopping–or just need to replace that rickety old laptop you've been carrying around for years? It's "Cyber Monday" and Wired has an excellent round up of all the tech bargains. Adobe Analytics, which tracks online sales, says the day's intake should exceed $9 billion, up almost 20% from last year.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

If social networks and other online spaces have caused as much trouble as Roger McNamee and some others say, it may be time to look for alternatives. Writer Annalee Newitz explores what could be next for messaging, sharing, and exploring online, in a New York Times piece called "A Better Internet Is Waiting for Us." There are no simple answers, however.

The legacy of social media will be a world thirsty for new kinds of public experiences. To rebuild the public sphere, we’ll need to use what we’ve learned from billion-dollar social experiments like Facebook, and marginalized communities like Black Twitter. We’ll have to carve out genuinely private spaces too, curated by people we know and trust. Perhaps the one part of Facebook we’ll want to hold on to in this future will be the indispensable phrase in its drop-down menu to describe relationships: “It’s complicated.”

Public life has been irrevocably changed by social media; now it’s time for something else. We need to stop handing off responsibility for maintaining public space to corporations and algorithms — and give it back to human beings. We may need to slow down, but we’ve created democracies out of chaos before. We can do it again.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

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Airbnb Changed New Orleans—And Now New Orleans Can’t Live Without It By Tracey Lindeman

Can an App Drive More Voters to the Polls in 2020? This Entrepreneur Has High Hopes It Will By Melanie Eversley

Want a SIM Card in China? You’ll Now Need to Get Your Faced Scanned First By Grady McGregor

Europe Is Terrified of Digital Currencies in the U.S. and China—But Can’t Manage to Develop Its Own By Geoffrey Smith

The Global Internet Is Splintering Apart and No-One Is Patching It Up By David Meyer

BEFORE YOU GO

If you, like Adam, are looking for a next big read, you'll find some juicy ones on Fortune's list of the 10 best business books of the year. New York Times reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey fill in the backstory of their seminal reporting on sexual-abuse cases in their book She Said, which can be read along with the similarly-themed Catch and Kill by Ronan Farrow. But my first read from the list is going to be Jenny Odell's modern advice book: How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy.

Aaron Pressman

On Twitter: @ampressman

Email: aaron.pressman@fortune.com

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